Our Ron Lippock talked with Steelers tackle Zach Banner, who signed with the team during training camp last year, about his foundation, his mentors, and why he chose Pittsburgh as a free agent.
First, tell me how the B3 Foundation you launched, how you got started and what it does?
It’s a non-profit that works out of three locations – Tacoma, Washington, Los Angeles and Guam. Those are the three locations that I’ve lived and grown up in – including Guam. I’m the first Chamorran ever to be drafted.
I’m trying to give back to inner city youth, taking care of them. In fact, we just passed out 150 backpacks in Tacoma for kids. There are so many issues there with gang violence where I grew up — there and in Guam as well — where I’m working on getting an entire fifth-grade class there backpacks as well.
I’ve spoken to over 40 different schools and we’ve now raised over $30,000. It’s been awesome and I want to grow it and help even more.
How did it all get started?
My publicist is on the board of directors as the secretary, and my best friend who is a banker is also on the board. A mentor of mine and a huge USC alumni has also helped – especially in introducing me to people – and as a USC alumni I made a lot of connections – especially in Los Angeles where we got a lot of financial help and big donations from.
I actually have drawn up a curriculum for a pilot where 15 high school football players will be mentoring other kids – to help them on their road to college.
Who helped mentor you to get you to this point personally and professionally?
Well, the first guys were really the gang members I grew up with in Washington. My older cousin Jacob, who has been in lock-up since I was in sixth grader – he looked after me. That’s why I am doing what I do now. I want to give back to the community – that’s why I had to leave – so I could stay focused and be able to help and give back.
[Athletic director] Pat Haden at USC helped shape me in college. And [Fox Sports’] Jacob Ullman was a big guy, OK. He’d laugh if I said that because he’s actually a small, Jewish guy! But he got me a job with Colin Cowhered while I was at USC – he was a big USC alumni. He introduced me to my agent Joe Panos, who was instrumental in me turning things around. He introduced me to Tyronne Smith, who has been a big mentor to me and helped me get in shape, watch film. … I came into the league at 420 pounds. I’m now at 340 pounds! Write that down! I’m not 360 like some people have written, 340!
And may dad, Ron Banner. He definitely helped shape me to become the man and player I am today.
And how did your biological father and former football player Lincoln Kennedy help, if at all?
I’m just getting to know Lincoln now, so we’ve just been doing that for the past few years.
So, why choose Pittsburgh in free agency?
They are the ones that called me first. Other teams called, but they were the first ones. They saw me on Instagram and saw I was training hard. Coach T called me and signed me and I came in half-way through camp last year and played in the Titans and Carolina games in the preseason. Those games solidified a spot on the roster for me. I earned Coach T’s respect, and he told me to move all of my stuff here to Pittsburgh for the offseason. We just had a polar vortex here – I told him he should have warned me about that first!
It’s a bit of a logjam at tackle right now. How do you navigate that?
First of all, let me make it clear, my two best friends on the team are Chuks [Okafor] and [Jerald] Hawkins. Then [Matt] Feiler. We’re all close. Good friends. I’d take care of Hawkins’ and when he has them, Chuks’ kids too if needed.
I will say it’s not like I’m even being considered by people outside of the team though. My uncle Marc told me he thought I would surprise people. I don’t read the media – but he told me I’m not even being considered. I’m telling you there are going to be a lot of innocent lives lost during camp!
How do you handle competing with guys you are so close to?
Put it this way, that’s the business side of the game. It’s not our fault we like each other. We still push each other and compete with each other.
Any fun stories so far of your time there?
There’s a certain law. I don’t want to get fined $5,000 if I tell any secrets or stories. So I’m going to pass on that one!
You had been active on social media. How do you navigate having fun with social media but not letting it go to far?
I took a break for a while from social media in the offseason. I stuck to myself. There’s a time in your life when you get to a certain point that you tell yourself you don’t want to settle for anything. That it’s time to shut up and get to work. So that’s what I did.
And you’re a big gamer as well?
I’m not a big gamer — I’m a top 500 gamer on [EA Sports] FIFA. I’m the best FIFA player on the team. I made $7,600 in winnings last year. I was even given a WWE-style belt by the equipment staff. Other guys have tried to take it away from me — Ola [Adeniyi], [Josh] Dobbs, [Kevin] Rader, [L.J.] Fort when he was here … Chuks won’t even play me now!
Any thoughts for fans on what to look out for this coming season?
I’m a fun guy off the field. But on the field I want to get back to the reputation I had when I was in high school and at USC. Back to being dominant. A road-grader. I want to get back to that.
That opportunity will rise for me. I just need to keep my head down and keep working. Fans will see that I’m someone who is proud to wear the Black and Yellow. They’ll see the highest level of effort possible for number 72.